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We all need some little victories

Five months of quarantine, working at home or not working at all, and we have had good and bad days. But then wildfires grew from seasonal to terrible, and we’ve been stuck inside all day and night due to the pervasive smoke in the tiny backyard that was once our safety valve to the cabin fever that I know is challenging so many people these days.

Don’t get me wrong for a second: I know how lucky we are to HAVE a safe home at all, especially during wildfire season and this pandemic. It’s just that we had adapted fairly well to the temporary strictures of limited grocery shopping, extra cleaning and caution, and suspending literally everything else we wanted to do lately. We KNOW we’re lucky.

But when even the tiny bit of equilibrium we had maintained was spun off kilter, things started to break down again.

Last night, I realized that maybe what we need are some little victories. Even tiny little benchmarks can give you a sense of accomplishment, and when everything seems to be in stasis — when it seems like we are constantly holding our breath, all day, every day — having something to look toward and work toward, however small, might be the next rope we can cling to, to pull ourselves back toward solid footing again.

Months ago, I made a list of things I wanted to do each day, each week, and each month. The daily items were small: a few minutes of stretches in the morning, 4000 steps on my cheap pedometer (a relative measure, but one that made me feel sufficiently active), a free Duolingo lesson each day, and a personal goal to clear out my email newsletters whether I read them or not, so that I didn’t have even that miniscule burden piling up on me. The daily goals were fair, but even those slipped at times. My weekly and monthly targets didn’t even come close.

Fast-forward to the present, and we will have to see what tiny things we can do now, even all indoors if that’s what it takes. I don’t care how simple they are: anything we can work on and potentially check off a list, even a list of only one or two things at first, can be the difference between focus and floundering. And focusing on something that is possible, can make the difference between overwhelm and holding it all together.

Holding it all together for a few hours gives you hope. Doing so for a few days gives you momentum. And keeping up that momentum for a few weeks means you have formed a new habit, and THAT can bring you new equilibrium.

As people talk about “finding a new normal” in pandemic times, I prefer to talk about a new equilibrium. Things will never go “back to normal”, and with all of the challenges facing us as a country and a world today, that can only be a good thing. We don’t need to go BACK to how things were; we need to find a way to deal with life NOW, for today and tomorrow.

When we focus on the moment, things don’t always feel so overwhelming. Once we can manage today, we may find that we can spare some energy for new ideas, for tomorrow, and for our fellow humans everywhere. And that is a balance that we can use to help ourselves and each other, to make things a little better each day.

Big steps come after. Today, put a little victory or two in sight, and start with that.

Briefly: Code-Switching and Education

Humans are not generally wired to appreciate change; in many, novelty often seems to activate the same parts of the brain that generate fear, a largely obsolete reaction to unexpected encounters in prehistory that might have meant a new predator or a dangerous development was at hand. This fact makes it even more important to expose young people (especially) to as many new ideas and situations as possible, preferably at the side of a guiding adult who understands both science and social nuances. With some exposure and a broad education, such children can grow up to be confident citizens of the world, open-minded enough to handle change with care and kindness, and wise enough to learn from their ongoing experiences and become even better at dealing with various people and groups they meet, and even with paradigm shifts that they will undoubtedly witness in their lifetimes. (These thoughts came after reading a short piece in today’s NYTimes morning briefing; follow the link and search the page for “Code-switching” if you’d like to read a little more on the subject.)

Briefly: MUJI

Today I discovered MUJI, short for Mujirushi Ryohin, a Japanese company that specializes in “no-brand quality goods” and environmental responsibility. Unexpectedly delightful, they have spread across the globe since 1980 and bring fascinating products and some real excellence to boot. See their pens, their octagonal chopsticks, and their household goods (and more) right here, at https://www.muji.com/us/ – if you prefer another language, just visit https://www.muji.com/ and select your nation of choice there. Check it out today!

Playing not to lose

The best possible case for “playing” life as a defensive game is holding your position. But you can only advance if you take action.

Life is not a game, of course, but any metaphor that helps you gain insight on how to approach it with more joy, more courage, and more success, can be worthwhile. I have always loved chess, and this can be fine lens for reflection at times.

For many years, I have seen people who play not to lose, without development, without any substantial action to better their positions. As with any form of life that does not grow up and outward, the world will encroach on such a quiet existence, and one can even lose important pieces unexpectedly. Some people will be slow and cautious before such a loss, like the chess King, and can even lose the most powerful people they have ever known. Many chess players feel lost without their Queen, and it is easy to understand how this feels if you have ever seen it first-hand in real life. But playing not to lose is no way to succeed at anything. As someone wiser than me once said, you have to risk losing; sometimes you have to risk everything.

To play an offensive game in chess, indeed to accomplish anything of note, you must attack. But first, you must observe everything, plan carefully, coordinate with everyone around you, and move swiftly and attentively. An offensive game in life is very similar, though attack is not required; you need only take action to move forward. Even lateral moves and temporary retreats have their place in chess and in life. And whether you live life as the king, carefully bearing a heavy responsibility for everyone around you, or the queen, moving swiftly and decisively, inspiring awe among those in your path, you still must keep track of the larger picture to have any chance at your ultimate goals. In chess, there is only one. In life, there are many: joy, health, love, friendship, knowledge, wisdom, service to others, self-respect, self-awareness, peace of mind, and so much more. Some of them may come easily, and some of them may take a lifetime of hard work, but all of them are only within reach if you mind the big picture while you take each step along the way.

So live your life on purpose, and remember to play sometimes, whatever your games of choice. But always pay attention, plan ahead, improvise when you must, and be bold enough to keep moving toward what you want.

It’s your move.

Order and Chaos (part 1)

I think it takes a very different spirit to appreciate the fleeting nature of life, versus that with which so many of us may have been raised.

Navigating to a new store today, in an area with which I was unfamiliar, I spotted a sign that said, “Yummy Bowl: Mongolian stir-fry and sushi, coming soon”. I was reminded of the restaurant Genghis Grill, which was wonderful on my first visit, good on my second visit, and closed on my third attempt. That restaurant closed forever before I got to try it a third time. While disappointed then, I look back today and am grateful that I got to discover it at all.

Which leads me to my Zen wisdom of today. That experiences are what make us richer, and I can always use a reminder to be grateful for what I have, and what I have had, more than I should ever continue mourning anything that I have lost.

Recognizing and overcoming guilt and shame

I have heard a lot in my life about guilt and about shame. These two negative emotions have very different impacts on life and on behavior, and I want to share some of what I have learned, through study, self-reflection, careful thought, and the love of those closest to me. This is how I learned to identify them and put them behind me, and I hope it helps you to do the same, so you can take back your life and live it more fully.

Most simply, guilt is something you feel that makes you regret a previous behavior and want to make amends, and to do better next time, too. Shame is an ouroboros, feeding on itself, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing useful, and providing no help. It is not even fuel to be burned, like anger (properly managed) can be.

Shame ruins everything you allow it to touch; there is no upside to it. It causes self-destructive behavior built on denial and pain. Shame has no opposite to balance it out; the only thing I have found that can counter it at all is a combination of honesty and love. Honesty with yourself, harsh honesty if needed, to see what you really did that makes you feel this way. You may be surprised that it doesn’t hold up as you thought it did. This makes it easier to move on.

Of course, sometimes it truly is as bad as you feared, but when you admit that to yourself first, you take away most of its power at once. Denial is a heavy blanket that weighs you down everywhere you go; it keeps you from breathing properly, from acting effectively, and from seeing what is really around you, even right in front of your face. Allow yourself to stare that pain down and feel it for a moment, then allow yourself to step away without breaking eye contact.

Shame cannot survive being spoken. Fears, too, often lose their power when you can put a name to them and call them out.

Face up to your deepest fears, your worst shame, and you lift the blanket of denial. Like coming up for air, you will immediately feel lighter, even if the shock of that air and that brightness may overwhelm you at first. To carry this metaphor to fruition, this also lets you move freely again. It can feel very different, suddenly having the ability to reach out and say or do something that felt unattainable before. But when you do this, you immediately take back some of the power to help yourself and to change what you’ve brought to be.

After honesty comes love.

Part of shame’s power to imprison your mind and heart is that it wields fear like a physical weapon. Fear hurts, and you can shy away from its touch, even for years. Many have this ingrained in them. But I have only found two things that can beat back fear. One is courage: not the absence of fear, but the determination to act from knowing that something else is more important. Sometimes clear thinking can help you reach this point, when you realize something new, or when someone else helps open your eyes to a truth you had overlooked.

But even more powerful and more sweeping is love. Love can wash fear away like the surf of a rising tide. This does not always happen automatically. Sometimes you have to burn away the denial with that lens of honesty before you can find the love beneath it, for denial can hide even that, when you give it enough power over enough time. But love unveiled can be your strongest defense and your greatest tool.

Love for another can make you choose to risk your life, or to give up something valuable, if you can help them. It can help you to overcome your lifelong shyness or your fear of embarrassment to step up and say a kind word to someone in need, or to someone in pain. This can be the protective love of a parent for a child, or a friend for another, or the selfless love of anyone for a stranger. It is all the same power, and it can inspire awe and help you to master any fear you have, as long as you can feel it openly.

Honesty can help you to see someone you love who is hurting, and to recognize that your love can help that person. This person can be someone with whom you are close, or someone distant to whom you want to reach out, or a total stranger you encounter seemingly by chance. It can even be yourself. Be honest, first, and then allow yourself to love someone – someone else, or your own being. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

If you have lived with shame, you are almost certainly telling yourself lies. Maybe someone else put them there in the beginning, and whether you hear their voice in your head and your heart, or whether you hear your own, shame does nothing but erode everything you are that matters. It saps your energy, it keeps you cold and still and quiet, and it robs you of your very life, one inch and one drop at a time. It serves nothing but pain and fear.

Guilt over actions means you see that you can do better. THAT is a fueling emotion that you can use to reach out and help someone. Even yourself! If you committed some offense that no one has even discovered yet, but you feel guilty about it, you can make yourself feel better if you take action to make it right, and right now. If you wronged another, honesty and love are still your best tools to set things right again. Speak the truth with humility and show that person some love. No, it may not always be possible to make things truly right, but you only have a chance to do better if you take action.

Don’t wait. Do it now. Look inside, talk with someone you trust, or talk with yourself in the mirror. But be honest. Then be kind. Even if you think you don’t know kindness, then you already know everything else that hurts. Say something that you’ve never heard anyone say. See how it makes you feel. If it surprises you and lifts your heart, start with that. You may have just discovered kindness on your own. And when you share that with the world, honestly, you will quickly find that kindness attracts more kindness, and you will learn even faster how it feels, and how to cultivate it everywhere you can. Then you’re making yourself and your world a better place.

Every day.

Potluck Lunch Loophole

One week before our office’s Thanksgiving potluck lunch, I was getting a little desperate to find a recipe that no one else was making.

All of the usual fare had been covered already: dressing, sides, desserts, breads, even drinks were volunteered by my colleagues. Keeping a vegetarian or even vegan diet for the past decade, my choices for what to bring were limited by more than my lack of culinary skill. I wanted something interesting that everyone could enjoy, but that I could confidently craft in no more than three tries, lest I run out of time, first, and food with which to experiment as well.

Happily, while reading a new friend’s lifestyle blog on Saturday, I discovered a marvelous little recipe with the perfect loophole: Healthy No-Bake Apple Cinnamon Energy Bites. Since the actual cooking was bound to be the hardest part for my potluck contribution, skipping it altogether seemed like a wonderful way to begin! The ingredients seemed simple enough, if somewhat unusual, but they looked tasty, and my friend had posted a brief and entertaining video wherein she put them together, so the entire process seemed foolproof. Of course, I had not yet begun to look foolish in my kitchen, but I was game for the challenge and set out to find what I needed before the day was out.

The recipe, which is posted in full right here, called for chewy apple rings and agave syrup, among other more common items, and those took some looking. I found the cinnamon, vanilla, and blue agave syrup at a grocery store in town, and the dates and bulk apple rings at Sprouts Farmers Market, though I read that Trader Joe’s has good apple rings as well. Still, I overbought dramatically, since I needed room to go wrong a time or three before making enough to feed a dozen people, preferably without rationing too sparsely. Sprouts was definitely the best place to get the fruits I needed at reasonable prices.

Smartphone in hand, I read up a bit on oats right there in the grocery store, before deciding on old-fashioned rolled oats instead of the instant variety. It seems like instant would work just fine, but old-fashioned oats bring exactly the consistency you want to offset the softness of the sticky dates, and I highly recommend them.

After one cycle without the oats (um… to check the consistency, thank you, not because I didn’t realize I had skipped something… oh, shut up), and one more with everything in order, I started to get a feel for the process and the goal. A total of eleven cycles, from measuring, to food processor, to shaping by hand and chilling on parchment paper, produced what I was sure would be plenty of Apple Cinnamon Bites for everyone. Little did I know that I had underestimated my friend’s deceptively-simple recipe, and the quality ingredients I insisted on using for my first run at this new process. I came home from the potluck utterly bereft of Bites, and with one colleague patently asking for more the next time I made them. I was not the only one delighted with the results!

While there is no profound insight in this blog post, in keeping with my frequent theme of trying something new and expanding your horizons, I did make a discovery that charmed everyone around me and left a healthy dose of confidence in its wake, though not so much as a crumb on the empty dishes I brought home. Even a man with zero cooking skills, but with a fine formula and good food choices along the way, can strike gold, and so can you. Choose your next testing ground and set yourself up for success. Then go make a mess, and have some fun doing it! Wherever you land, you can be glad you took the leap.